5. Planetary Boundaries and Resource Politics

STEPS Learning > Course: Pathways to Sustainability > Planetary Boundaries and Resource Politics

In this section, we’ll engage with (and problematise) some of the most prominent discourses around the environment and sustainability. The first part examines the concepts of “planetary boundaries” and the “Anthropocene”, demonstrating how these ideas have been presented in ways that ignore the deeply political and contested nature of the problems that these ideas seek to explain and solve.

The second part of the section extends this focus on the political nature of sustainability, looking specifically at the politics of resource management. Both parts foreground the importance of such a political reading of sustainability if socially just and environmentally sound pathways to sustainability are considered desirable.

Learning outcomes

At the end of this module, a successful participant should be able to:

  1. Describe what is meant by the idea of “planetary boundaries”.
  2. Describe why some commentators argue we have now entered a new geological epoch, “The Anthropocene”.
  3. Articulate how these concepts have been criticised for not attending to politics, social justice and international development concerns.
  4. Describe why natural resource management is inherently political.
  5. Define how various environmental policy processes entail the financialisation of nature.
  6. Apply these concepts to concrete examples of policy processes.

In this section

5.1: Planetary Boundaries and the Anthropocene

5.2: Resource Politics


5.1: Planetary Boundaries and the Anthropocene

The idea of “planetary boundaries” and the new geological epoch of “the Anthropocene” has captured the imagination of many policy makers and commentators and dominated discussions around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In this part of the module, ex-STEPS Centre Director and current Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Professor Melissa Leach, articulates the problems with these concepts and how a STEPS Pathways perspective might help to foreground issues of social justice and politics in these on-going international policy discussions.

Essential reading

Questions to guide reading

  1. On what basis do Rockström and his co-authors define planetary boundaries?
  2. On what basis does Raworth challenge Rockström et al’s planetary boundaries idea? What does she argue must be added?
  3. How do Leach et al take this further still via the application of a Pathways Approach?

Lecture and films

Watch these films in the order they appear on the page.

1) Prof Melissa Leach: Planetary Boundaries, Politics and Pathways (intro)

2) Welcome to the Anthropocene

3) Prof Johan Rockstrom: Let the environment guide our development, TED talk, July 2010

4) Prof Melissa Leach: Planetary Boundaries, Politics and Pathways (full lecture)

Additional reading

Assessment questions

  1. What are the limitations of a “planetary boundaries” framing of sustainability?
  2. How does a “Pathways Approach” perspective help to articulate the intrinsically political nature of the “planetary boundaries” concept

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5.2: Resource Politics

Building on accounts of sustainability inspired by the Pathways Approach, this module casts specific analytic light on the political nature of natural resource management. The module includes an overarching introduction to the issue of resource politics, together with detailed explorations of resource politics in relation to the financialisation of nature, land water and green grabs, enclosures and dispossession.

As international policy processes increasingly look to market-based mechanisms to deliver against broader sustainability goals, this part of the module provides an essential point of departure for a more critical reading of these processes and their distributional implications. It critically engages with concepts such as the resource ‘nexus’, aiming to open up a political interrogation of resource issues.

This section is slightly different from most of the others. The lecture is made up of three presentations from three separate members of the STEPS Centre.

Essential reading

Questions to guide reading (and your engagement with the lectures)

  1. In what way is natural resource management political?
  2. What is meant by “the financialisation of nature”?
  3. How is financialisation of nature being used in international policy processes? Why is this problematic?
  4. What is distinct about contemporary grabbing processes?
  5. How would you theorise land/ water/ green grabbing?

Video lectures

Lecture 1: Jeremy Allouche on Resource Politics

Lecture 2: Dr Amber Huff on Resource Politics and the Financialisation of Nature

Lecture 3: Prof Lyla Mehta on Land & water grabs, enclosures and dispossession

Additional reading and videos

  • Dalby, S. (2007). Anthropocene geopolitics: globalisation, empire, environment and critique. Geography Compass, 1(1), 103-118.
  • Duffy, R. (2014). Waging a war to save biodiversity: the rise of militarized conservation. International Affairs, 90(4), 819-834.
  • Fairhead, J., Leach, M. & Scoones, I. (2012) Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature? Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(2): 237-261
  • (VIDEO) Feydel, S., and Delestrac, D. (2014) Banking Nature. Java Films.
  • Goldman, M. J., Turner, M. D. and Nadasdy, P. (eds) Knowing Nature: Conversations at the Intersection of Political Ecology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • (VIDEO) Latour, B. (2014). War and peace in an age of ecological conflicts. Lecture, 23rd of September, Vancouver, Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.
  • McAfee, K. (2012). The Contradictory Logic of Global Ecosystem Services Markets, Development and Change, 43(1): 105–131
  • Ben White, Saturnino M. Borras Jr., Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones & Wendy Wolford
  • (2012): The new enclosures: critical perspectives on corporate land deals, Journal of Peasant Studies, 39:3-4, 619-647

Assessment questions

  1. Do you agree with the notion that water grabbing is more ‘slippery’ than land grabbing? Why?
  2. In what ways does a political reading of natural resource management intersect with the core ideas of the Pathways Approach?
  3. Discuss the implications of the “the financialisation of nature” with reference to either contemporary international climate change or biodiversity policy.

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